At the end of Josh Hamilton's first week back with the Texas Rangers, we know something we already knew, but perhaps allowed ourselves to forget: Josh Hamilton sure can hit a baseball.
Last weekend's series against the Boston Red Sox in Arlington was Hamilton's homecoming to the team that helped make him a superstar, but it was not his first set of games back with the club; he re-debuted with the Rangers in Cleveland, and was held to one hit in three games, a single in the Rangers' 12-3 loss in the series finale. It was nothing worth writing home about, even if the Rangers did take two of three.
Anyway, home had lately become a complicated thing for Hamilton, a player whose entire career has been defined by complication. If things had gone as they were supposed to go for Hamilton—if he was not an addict, and had never battled his way into recovery—he never would have played for the Rangers in the first place. On this latest last chance tour, after a mostly disastrous tenure in Anaheim that ended with a relapse and the Angels doing everything they could to sever its ties to him, Hamilton was not so much coming home as coming to a crossroads.
And then he returned to Arlington and turned on the gas: a single and double last Thursday, two home runs and a walk on Friday, two walks on Saturday, and a walk-off pinch-hit double on Sunday to turn what looked like a series split with the Red Sox into three out of four for his Rangers. How happy were Rangers fans to see that? Well, very.
Seven games and 26 plate appearances is the very definition of "it's early," admittedly. But the question the Angels posed to the rest of Major League Baseball when they effectively suspended Hamilton indefinitely and traded him back to the Rangers for nothing but the barest minimum of salary relief wasn't "what kind of Major League player is Josh Hamilton, now?" but "Wow, he's not a major league player at all anymore, is he?"
They did this, of course, because Hamilton self-reported a cocaine relapse, and the Angels—who seemed not to have ever previously considered the possibility that this might happen to the game's most famously in-recovery player—were outraged when the league office found no cause to suspend Hamilton. The Angels were very publically incensed about this. The Angels were very childishly incensed about this. In the end, the Angels decided their only recourse was to send Josh Hamilton back where he came from, with Texas paying only $6 million of his remaining $83 million salary obligation. There are only so many things to say about 26 plate appearances, but it does not seem too early to say that this was not a good look for the Angels.
After a move like that—following about a month of ridiculous posturing in the press from Angels brass and ownership about Hamilton's failures to live up to his contract—only one of two things could be true. Either Josh Hamilton was woefully unfit to play baseball at a professional level, or the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as an organization, were woefully unfit to deal with the disease of addiction.
Regardless of whether Hamilton is a resurgent MVP candidate or 'merely' an average MLB left fielder moving forward, we appear to have a definitive answer on that count: the Angels had no idea what they were doing when they signed Hamilton, and when it became clear they had no idea what they were doing, they panicked and dealt with their problem by making it go away as fast as possible.
There's another confounding part of this too: the idea that the Rangers are the only team in baseball that can properly handle an addict. Addiction is, of course, an impossible thing; it is stubborn and mean and persistent and destructive, and organizations have no easier a time with it than do individuals. Dealing with it costs money, and time, and requires developing certain types of understanding that, both on a personal and organizational level, are anathema to modern sports culture.
Mostly, in pro sports, it requires recognizing addiction not only as a disease, but as something completely apart and distinct from an "injury." An addict cannot be placed on the disabled list, sent to work with a team's chosen specialists, and then be expected to come back healthy. That is simply not how it works. The Rangers have no special insight or expertise here. They simply give a damn enough to help Josh Hamilton function professionally. That the best seasons of his career all happened in Texas is not, given these circumstances, an accident. This is all the more reason to suspect that, if a Josh Hamilton Renaissance is possible, it would happen here, with the only team that ever understood how to treat him like the human being that he is.
However Hamilton's comeback tour winds up, we already have a lesson to learn. Every time we praise the Rangers for their understanding, every time we laud them for the systems they've put in place to help Hamilton succeed, we should also turn our eyes towards the rest of the league and ask: why couldn't we expect the same from you? Josh Hamilton is, still, one of the great baseball talents of his generation. How is it that only one team figured out how to help him become Josh Hamilton?